Experts say educators are under-equipped to help children with rising mental health needs
Schools and teachers are “buckling under the strain” of supporting the fast-growing number of schoolchildren developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, experts say.
Despite being the people pupils turn to most often when in distress, teachers are hampered in their desire to help by the profession’s widespread lack of training in tackling mental ill-health.
The huge barriers many families in England face getting help for their son or daughter from NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) put pressure on schools, according to a group of education and health experts writing in the journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
“Children’s burgeoning health needs are not currently being met by the health sector. Schools and teachers provide vital support but they are buckling under the strain of the demands placed on them,” they say.
“The mental health of children and young people in England, and the services designed to support them, are in a dire state,” they add. While rates of mental illness in under-18s have risen by half in the last three years, “provision is nowhere near sufficient to meet need.”
Only one in four of the 500,000 children and young people referred to CAMHS every year receive help as services are stretched, and many are refused care because they are deemed not ill enough.
The authors include Chloe Lowry of the UCL Institute of Education in London, Lisa-Maria Müller and Alison Peacock from the Chartered College of Teaching and Anant Jani of Heidelberg university’s Institute of Global Health in Germany. Schools should receive funding from the NHS to help them train teachers to cope with rising need, they argue.
Teachers’ detailed knowledge of and regular interaction with their pupils means they are “not only the first port of call when concerns arise, but for many the only port of call”. Children and young people seek help from them more often than from their own family, surveys show. Teachers are regarded, alongside GPs and social workers, as part of the first tier of support in CAMHS.
“It is therefore both astonishing and alarming that teachers in England are not adequately trained for these roles,” the authors write. Only one teacher a school in England receives mental health awareness training.
Despite being tier 1 CAMHS professionals, just 40% of classroom teachers feel equipped to teach children in their class with mental health needs and only 32% knew which organisations outside the school could help pupils, according to a report for the government in 2016.
“While schools and colleges do all they can for pupils, it remains the case that the lack of support and provision of mental health services for children and young people has been an ongoing problem for many years,” said Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU, the main teaching union. Covid has made the situation worse, she added.
“Workload, lack of external support, inadequate numbers of staff to work on pastoral issues and training are all huge barriers to pupils getting the support they need and should expect.”
Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist, said teachers need to have specialist mental health services they can refer pupils on to because pupils are displaying ever more complex problems.
“Schools should offer basic mental health training to all staff, have specialist trained teachers, have support for staff to share the challenges they may be facing in their students and themselves, [and] have clear school policies and procedures on steps to take with students presenting with different mental health conditions,” added Krause.
A government spokesperson said: “We are supporting teachers to help children and young people to recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic, including by offering training to senior mental health leads in every state school and college by 2025.
“To support pupils with more complex needs, we have also invested an additional £79m to expand children’s mental health services and accelerate the rollout of mental health support teams, which will give nearly three million children in England access to health experts through school or college by April 2024.”